Tips for Improving a Co-parenting Relationship

By Mark B. Baer, Esq.

According to Brené Brown, Ph.D., LMSW, “shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.  Shame corrodes the piece of us that believes we are capable of change.”  Who is Brené Brown, you ask?  She is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work and has spent the past decade studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame.  As Dr. Brown says, there is a huge difference between telling someone they made a mistake and telling them that they are a mistake.  People tend to feel guilty when they realize they made a mistake.  “Guilt is the motivator of change,” says Dr. Brown.  If one is led to believe that they are the mistake, how do they address that?  They don’t.  How does one improve if they believe that they are incapable of change?  They don’t.

During the course of her research, Dr. Brown discovered the following twelve categories of shame:  (1) appearance & body image; (2) money & work; (3) motherhood/fatherhood; (4) family; (5) parenting; (6) mental & physical health (including addiction); (7) sex; (8) aging; (9) religion; (10) speaking out; (11) surviving trauma; and (12) being stereotyped & labeled.  Do you realize that when dealing with the dissolution of relationships where families are involved, at least 3 categories of shame can potentially come into play?

It should be noted that according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate® Dictionary, 11th Edition, parent is defined as “one that begets or brings forth offspring” and “a person who brings up and cares for another.”  On the other hand, parenting is defined as “the raising of a child by its parents.”  People often confuse those terms.  Does an uninvolved parent cease being a parent?  No.  Does a parent whose parenting skills leave something to be desired cease being a parent?  No.  In other words, for better or for worse, a parent is always a parent, unless they give the child up for adoption or their parental rights are otherwise terminated.

Will someone become a good parent if we shame them into believing that they are a bad parent?  Not according to Brené Brown.  In fact, not only will they act in accordance with their belief, but we tend to let them off the hook because we expect no more.  The question then becomes, how does someone become a better parent?  Since shame has the opposite effect and “guilt is the motivator of change,” wouldn’t it make sense to cause someone to want to step up to plate and take responsibility?  Is it by convincing the other parent that they are wrong?  Have you ever tried to convince a person that they were wrong?  It doesn’t work.

Fortunately, studies have found that the ratio of positive to negative comments impacts behavior.  In fact, the “Ideal Praise–to-Criticism Ratio” is basically the same, whether it involves personal or business matters.  In his book, “What Predicts Divorce?: The Relationship Between Marital Processes and Marital Outcomes,” John Gottman found that “the single biggest determinant [as to whether or not wedded couples will divorce] is the ratio of positive to negative comments the partners make to one another….  He found that the optimal ratio was five positive comments to every negative one….  For those who ended up divorced, the ratio was something like three positive comments for every four negative ones.”  Interestingly enough, Emily Heaphy, Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Boston University School of Management and Marcial Losada, Ph.D., conducted research, wherein they “examined the effectiveness of 60 strategic-business-unit leadership teams at a large information-processing company….  They found that average ratio for the highest-performing teams was 5.6 (that is, nearly six positive comments for every negative one).”

We cannot change other people, we can only change ourselves.  We need to accept personal responsibility for our contribution to the problem.  As they say, it takes two to tango.  According to Albert Einstein, the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  Maybe if we changed our approach, we might discover a change in the results.  If people want to improve “team performance,” whether with a spouse, significant other, co-parent, co-worker, or anyone else, maybe they should consider the “Ideal Praise–to-Criticism Ratio” and stop the shaming.

Mark Baer Esq. is Founder of Mark B. Baer Inc., a Professional Law Corporation and divorce. Mark has been practicing family law for over 20 years and is one of the foremost legal authorities in the country. He handles all areas of family law including but not limited to divorce, child custody and support, spousal support, high-net worth divorce, property division and domestic violence.